Tangled Up in Trump
My latest column from the CounterPunch print magazine: The tangled tropes of Trump are many and various. Most have at least a tincture of veracity in them — although the phenomenon of his candidacy is so vast and gaseous it’s not surprising that some discharge from it would fall, like mist, or a wet clump of coagulate matter, on scattered bits of the truth here and there.
One trope says we’ve been here before, with the political triumph of a gleefully ignorant, blustering, bigoted faux populist made famous by show biz: Ronald Reagan. Although he was more closely handled, Reagan’s off-hand idiocies and nasty nativism were very much in the Trumpian vein. Then there’s Dubya Bush, a certified chowderhead riding to power spouting gooberish nonsense and simplistic slogans while, like Reagan, acting as cover for a rapacious agenda of corporatism and militarism. In this view, Trump is just one more in an inglorious line of dimbulb hucksters whose success confirms, yet again, H.L. Mencken’s bleak view of the knuckle-dragging American electorate, whose intelligence can never be underestimated. (Or even misunderestimated.)
Another view sees Trump as a welcome — if inadvertent — heightener of contradictions, exposing the unsustainable hypocrisies of the system and bringing the rancid impostume of our militarized hyper-capitalism to the bursting point. The poisons that ooze from this opened carbuncle — the racism, aggression, nativism, hatred and vulgarity that pour from Trump’s mouth in a gangrenous stream — will provoke a movement that will — eventually, after much struggle and suffering — cleanse the body politic at last. (“The worse, the better” is a stance with a long history in political warfare; Lenin was an adept of the principle, as are the Senate Republicans.)
Others take heart from some of Trump’s sporadic sputterings that seem to echo fragments of a Ron Paul-like desire to rein in the bipartisan imperial project. They point to the fact that Trump declared — in a GOP debate, no less — that Dubya and his cronies should be put on trial for the Iraq War: something no other figure in either major party has ever done. He has also made noises about a more rational policy toward Russia (as opposed to the endless provocations and Cold War chest-beating of the Peace Prize Prez). He even once mentioned in a speech that we should take cognizance of the millions of foreigners who’ve been killed in the War on Terror: again, something that no other Dem/GOP politician has ever dared mention. (Not even Bernie Sanders, whose “radical” stance is that the Saudis should take over some of the killing for us.) Such statements have been seized upon by some who hope that a Trump presidency will break the bipartisan consensus on America’s deadly and sinister foreign policy.
Other tropes view Trump as an unprecedented catastrophe for American politics, a fascist (or fascist-like) figure whose like has never been seen before in our Republic. Or as the undertaker of the Republican Party, which, some savants say, will now go the way of the Whigs. Still others see Trump as a lightning rod for the disaffections of the white working and middle classes whose security and prosperity have been destroyed by globalization and corporate greed; Trump provides them with racist and xenophobic scapegoats for their suffering, while obscuring the true culprits: he and his fellow gorgers in the financial elite (and the politicians whom, he freely admits, the elite buy with their contributions).
This hardly exhausts the meanings that have been attached to Trump’s ascendancy. And as noted, there’s some truth in most of them. (Although I do think the reports of the GOP’s death are greatly exaggerated.) We have had shallow fools in charge of the country before. It is true that the irreconcilable contradictions of the system are coming to a head. Trump has uttered some truths about U.S. imperialism that we never hear from our politicians. He is more openly like a quasi-fascist authoritarian than we’ve seen before. He is tapping into the justified frustrations of millions of Americans at the depredations of the bipartisan neoliberal project.
But almost all of these tropes have been contradicted by Trump himself. Yes, he occasionally critiques American imperialism — then makes bellicose statements about augmenting it, including the possibility of using nukes in the Middle East. (To be fair, he stole that from Hillary’s 2008 campaign). Yes, he speaks to working class loss — then touts economic policies that will exacerbate it, such as lifting the few remaining feeble restraints on Wall Street. Yes, he talks of breaking the militaristic foreign policy paradigm — then promises to put the military in charge of foreign policy, expand the use of torture, “go after” the families of terrorist suspects, and so on.
Despite some garish trappings — such as the continual disgorgement of his id on Twitter — if Trump attains the White House, he will no doubt perpetuate the current system in its essential form. As will Clinton, of course; indeed, that perpetuation is the raison d’être of her whole campaign. In either case, the Deep State — that unfathomably vast network of contracts and covert ops, surveillance and subversion, corruption and corporatism that constitutes the genuine substance of the American government — will carry on.Add a comment
Terror War and Trumpery Take US into Terra Incognita
Another day, another Trump delegate calling for the violent overthrow of the government. This sort of thing used to be frowned upon, I believe, but now is simply par for the political course. The odd thing, of course, is that if Obama wasn't black, he would be a conservative's dream. He's opened up more offshore drilling than Bush, expanded fracking, deported more people than any president in history, killed thousands of Muslims (and is currently bombing seven Muslim countries), raised military budgets, cut federal taxes to their lowest levels in 60 years, cut social programs, spent almost 8 years trying to strike a "grand bargain" with Republicans to cut Social Security and Medicare (until this week when, in his last months in office, he's suddenly decided we should increase Social Security), worked hard to derail public healthcare in favor of a program drawn up by a conservative think-tank and first used by a Republican governor, put troops on the Russian border, beefed up US military presence in Asia to threaten China, supported right-wing coups in Latin America, gave Wall Street trillions of dollars in bailouts and credits, refused to prosecute any CIA officials for torture (despite admitting "we tortured some folks"), jailed more whistleblowers than any other president, pushed fanatically pro-business trade treaties, and so on.
Yet there is a mass delusion (carefully and methodically stoked by powerful interests) that he is some kind of socialist peacenik "surrendering to terrorists" and giving away "free stuff" to the lazy poor (when in fact the poor and the middle class are sinking, while the rich have never been richer), etc. Now Trump is deliberately drawing the most frenzied and violent of these delusionals into the center of American politics. The "respectable" bi-partisan establishment has already loosed many demons with its "Terror War" (torture, aggressive war, drones, assassination squads, covert ops, mass surveillance, etc.); now Trump is drawing even more evil from the depths. America has drifted deep into terra incognita -- and "here be dragons".Add a comment
Twilight of the Grifter: Bill Clinton’s Fading Powers
In the warm twilight of a spring evening 15 years ago, in the quiet, green garden of Rhodes House at Oxford, I watched Bill Clinton give an impromptu talk to a group of graduate students who had gathered around him with their glasses of wine after an official function earlier in the day. (I was there in a service capacity.) He was pushing the same line he espoused last week while campaigning for Hillary, when he declared that he had “killed himself” to get a state for the Palestinians at the high-stakes Camp David summit in 2000. At one point in the twilight talk at Oxford, he quoted — or claimed to quote — Yasser Arafat as testimony to his altruistic efforts: “Arafat told me, ‘Mr President, you have done more for the Palestinian people than all the Arab leaders combined!’” Sadly, the pressures those short-sighted Arabs brought to bear on Bill’s friend Yasser thwarted Clinton’s painstaking and heroic labors on the Palestinians’ behalf, and the summit failed.
I admit, Clinton is (or was) good at this kind of thing. He held the group in the palm of his hand, speaking with an engaged — and engaging — passion, direct and personal, without soaring rhetoric or the practiced glibness of the professional politician. It was interesting to see this phenomenon up close. In the immediate spell of his performance, you hardly noticed the great hubris and arrogance in what he actually said: that he alone had almost brought peace to the Middle East, that he loved the Palestinians more than the Arabs themselves did, that no one could have done more than he did to resolve the situation — all the while reducing Arafat to the role of a servile coolie, who humbly attests to the Master’s greatness and nobility.
And even though I knew at the time there was hardly a word of truth in what he said (as this story, unearthed by Spencer Thayer, makes clear), I could still feel the tidal pull of his charisma, the temptation to let go and believe in the portrait, the fantasy, he was painting. Indeed, I think Clinton himself probably believed it, at least in the moment of its telling — which is course the hallmark, the supreme talent, of a master grifter.
Of course, that was long ago. Watching Clinton today on the campaign trail for Hillary, it seems clear that his charisma has severely decayed, perhaps rotted by the years of money-grubbing with oligarchs and despots. Or maybe it's just the natural fading that comes with age and disuse. (When I saw him, he was only a few weeks out of his presidency, still at the top of his game with the skills he’d honed during decades of continual politicking.) Now he seems brittle, rattled and scattered; he can summon the spirits, in a wan attempt to paint over the truth — but they no longer come when he calls.Add a comment
Pray You Down: Song for a Time of Madness
"You'll need someone to pray you down." A song for our fever dream, personal and political.Add a comment
Slumber Party: Americans Close Their Eyes to the Nation's Crimes
Baghdad attacks: At least 69 killed in suicide attacks and car bombings in Iraq capital. JeSuisBaghdad hashtags? Iraqi flag colors on Facebook statuses? World leaders rushing to the scene to show solidarity? No? No. It's just another day for the Iraqis, living in the open range for violent extremism created by our invasion (on false pretenses) and our other interventions in the region. These victims of terrorism don't count because: a) they're Muslims, so nobody cares; b) the truth that Muslims are the primary victims of Islamic terrorism upsets the wildly popular notion that all Muslims are terrorists; c) acknowledging the actual consequences of what we have done in Iraq would make it hard for Americans to go to bed at night believing they're God's little sunbeams in the world's bestest nation that's never done anything wrong. And we can't have that. Far better that multitudes of innocent people die for our crimes, just as long as nothing disturbs our self-righteous slumber.Add a comment
Protection Racket: Why Our Leaders Shield Torturers
Here’s a headline for you: “GOP Senator Wants to Make Sure the Full CIA Torture Report Never Sees the Light of Day.” And why does he want to do that? Because our sexually anxious overlords get off on torture. It makes them hard. It makes them feel tough. It makes them forget what cringing, servile ass-kissers they’ve had to be — for years on end — in order to slither and slime their way to the top. That’s it. That’s all of it. All the other ‘reasons’ they adduce for protecting the practice — and practitioners — of torture are just bullshit. They love it because they are weak, sick, damaged wretches dead to their own humanity.Add a comment
A Picture of American Policy: Waking From the Fever Dream
*My column in the latest CounterPunch Magazine.* Last month I saw a picture, a photograph that burned down the Potemkin village of American politics that tends to rise in even the most skeptical mind during the fever dream known as the presidential campaign. We all get caught up in it, especially those of us who've been following politics for decades, and were marinated for many years in a mainstream perspective. I myself was raised as a "yellow dawg" Democrat in the South. The idea, of course, was that no matter who the Democrats nominated -- even it was a yellow dog -- you voted for them. My father -- perhaps to his credit? -- carried on with this ideal long after almost all of his fellow white rural Southerners had abandoned the Democrats for the dog-whistle racism of the modern Republican Party.
I remember well one of his most abiding pieces of political wisdom. It was 1984, and a neighbor of ours -- a big, hulking, slightly backward country boy who'd been devoted to my father since their school days -- told him: "Chief, I'm thinkin' about votin' for Reagan this time. What do you think?" My father leaned against the back of his pickup truck and said in a cool, even tone: "Buford, a man who'd vote for Reagan would eat shit." Buford nodded his head vigorously. "You right about that, Chief!" (But I'm sure he voted for Reagan anyway.)
So I'm well aware that it's hard not to get caught up in the horse race of the Grand Quadrennial Derby: "Was this a good move for Bernie? Will HRC take a hit from Bill's gaffe? Is Trump faltering? Will the GOP elites come around to Cruz?" And so and so forth with the myriad other permutations and speculations that can dazzle the mind -- and numb the moral sense -- while watching the political circus.
But then something will shake you -- or slap you -- awake. And so one day I saw a photograph someone tweeted from the Yemen Post. It showed a young girl -- 12, 14, the age was hard to tell. She was on her hands and knees face down in the dirt, trying to suck water from a hole in a dirty rubber pipe. And in that instant, all the silly, stupid, evil folderol of the campaign circus, all the earnest bunting that adorns the Potemkin village, fell away.
I saw the picture, and I knew -- once again-- this is America in the modern world. This is American foreign policy. This is what it is, this is what it does. This is a war that our Peace Prize-winning president has been conducting with his Saudi allies for more than a year. It’s been responsible for the "excess deaths" of 10,000 children, according to UNICEF. (Let's repeat that: TEN THOUSAND CHILDREN.) It has driven millions to the brink of famine. It has destroyed schools, hospitals, infrastructure. It has been a gigantic boon for al Qaeda by attacking its deadliest foes in Yemen, the Houthis, and giving it scope to spread. It is a humanitarian disaster and a moral outrage of the highest order.
And yet ... there is no outrage. There is scarcely any notice, beyond a bare minimum of "marginal" websites and a few stories deeply buried, and stripped of context, in the bowels of the mainstream press. In the past year, a "progressive" administration -- whose policies will be continued by either of the Democratic nominees (yes, even Bernie says he wants to see more Saudi militarism in the region) -- has been directly complicit in the deaths of TEN THOUSAND CHILDREN. And no one involved in the presidential circus -- not the candidates, not the media, not the analysts, not the horse race afficianados -- gives the slightest damn.
None of them -- and nothing in the sinister clownery of his election -- deals with the reality of what we are doing in the world. No one will speak of its true, deeply criminal nature -- not even the "radical," "revolutionary" "Democratic Socialist" candidate. So what, in the end, are they really talking about? They’re talking about nothing. They’re talking about bullshit. They’re talking about anything on God’s green earth — or rather, God’s bloodstained, gouged-out, dying earth — but reality.
The reality is a young girl forced to go down on her hands and knees to pry a few drops of water from a broken pipe. She could be your daughter. She could be you. She is a human being who did nothing wrong but be born in a place where a few "progressive" American elites -- headed by the Peace Prize-winning president -- wanted to play with their head-chopping, woman-hating allies to achieve and maintain dominance over the oil lands and their strategic environs.
In the end, it comes down to that brief scene in Warren Beatty's film, "Reds," where a plump, patriotic burgomeister from Portland calls on Jack Reed to explain "just what this war [WWI] is all about!" Reed rises amongst the tuxedoes and pretty outfits at the gathering and says but a single word: "Profits."
That's why the Yemeni girl is face down in the dirt, scrambling desperately for water. That's all it's about, this "war on terror," that's the only thing it's ever been about: profits.
And whoever is elected, that's not going to change.Add a comment
Something for the Server: Keeping the Burlesque Kicking
As long-time readers know, the Empire Burlesque website is a bespoke creation of our remarkable webmaster, Richard Kastelein. He approached me years ago and offered to build a website from scratch and host it on a private server, which would keep it free from government or corporate interference. That’s just what he did, and he has kept it running in high gear for 11 years now. However, as we all know, freedom ain’t never free. The private server costs money to maintain (and defend from attacks), and for all these years this cost has been borne entirely by Rich, who also hosts a number of other important sites on it.
It’s a sacrifice he’s been glad to make — such is the measure of the man — but it is a sacrifice, a financial burden that continually mounts up. So the writers who benefit from all of his hard work and creativity are pitching in to try to ease that burden in a straitened time. In addition to our own contributions, we are inviting readers to show their appreciation for Rich’s work with a small contribution as well. It’s very simple. Just press the button, and any donation will go straight to the server costs.
Both Rich and I are always leery of asking readers for contributions. We know that the kind of people who read Empire Burlesque are not the ruthless profiteers of this world, with plenty of spare cash lying around to spend at a whim. So, as always, we ask you to consider giving only what you can give, without straining your own resources.
I am even more leery of asking for contributions, of course, because I’ve not been blogging very much, for quite some time. And once again, I apologize for the dearth of posts. There are personal reasons for this, but I do hope to start blogging on a more sustained basis again soon. (Although I know I’ve said that before, too!) With current constraints on time and energy for full-scale blogging, I have been trying to keep my hand in with occasional short observations on Twitter (@empireburlesque). But that is not exactly a forum for working out one’s thoughts and ideas with any depth or nuance. So I hope to return to more regular blogging as soon as I can.
And that’s why I’m even more cognizant of the sacrifices Rich has made and is making for this blog. He continues to host and improve the blog even as I’ve provided precious little in the way of content. So I am very happy for this chance to help do whatever I can to ease some of the financial burden of the server costs.
So again, if you can — and if you take a notion — do think of pitching a few coins into the server bucket. Thanks.Add a comment
Stress Test: Childhood as a Raw Material for Investor Exploitation
In the Guardian, Zoe Williams captures the test-obsessed, ranking-addled, childhood-destroying insanity of the UK education system very well. Who is telling the government that this ruthless quantification is good for children? Not teachers, not education experts, not academics; every study and measure shows how destructive and detrimental it is, to students, to teachers, to communities. So who are they listening to, our leaders who care so much about our Big Society? As in America, they're listening to the testing profiteers, to blinkered ideologues (who can forget Michael Gove's great plan to improve education by giving every school a brand new Bible -- with his own name in it?) and, above all, to predatory investors (like the Murdochs, among many) who see the lives of our children -- their minds, their education, their very childhood -- as nothing more than so much raw material to mine for their own profit.
Williams is particularly and painfully right about the ongoing struggle of parents to assure our children that their entire self-worth -- and their dreams and ambitions for the future -- are not dependent on their SAT scores or GSCE results, and the difficulty of trying to find the proper balance between encouraging them to work hard and do well -- for their own sakes, for the development of their own minds -- while trying to tamp down the high pressure and unnecessary anxiety induced by this irrational and inhumane testing regime.
I've had children in primary or high school for more than 30 years, in two countries; and throughout that time, in both the US and UK, I've been amazed at the vast disparity between the never-ending gush of sentimental pieties about "how much we care for our children" -- and the callous indifference shown in the actual practice of the actual systems in which we place them. That disparity seems to grow greater, and more pernicious, with each passing year.Add a comment
Dry Bones: Racist History Returns With a Vengeance
When I was 18, I worked for the Tennessee Department of Conservation at the Cedars of Lebanon State Park, a summer job where a few teenagers helped the park’s permanent workers clean up the picnic areas and campgrounds and ball fields. I mostly helped two ageing characters who’d gotten their sinecures through political patronage. Both were near retirement, and were seeing out their working years with some easy work in pleasant surroundings. They had a black boss they didn’t much like — a park ranger — but they kept their racial sideswipes to a minimum, at least for those days.
Both were men of profound and “sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions,” as the saying goes. (Or rather, as the language of the new Jim Crow law in Mississippi goes.) They often held forth on weighty matters of faith and morals as we cruised the park in a truck, emptying trash cans and spending long (very long) breaks beside the big Cedar Park swimming pool, full to the brim of bikini-clad young women enjoying the fine Tennessee summer. Two expositions of their faith have long stood out in my memory.
One was the story of a fallen woman, a prostitute, who in her despair and moral anguish had turned to the church of one of my stalwart Christian colleagues. He told of how one Sunday, she came into the church after the service had started: shyly, hesitantly, seemingly ashamed of herself as she took a seat in a back pew, still wearing the clothes of her previous night’s labor: short skirt, tight top, platform heels. (He was particularly assiduous and copious in his description.) The startled congregation hardly knew what to make of her — and she hurried out quickly at the service’s end.
But she kept returning, for the next few weeks, always in the same fashion: coming in late, furtively, still in her Saturday clothes, keeping to herself in the back, hurrying out lest she scandalize the faithful by her very presence. Obviously she was yearning for the Lord to pull her from her life of sin. But no one in the church approached her, no one emulated the Saviour with the woman taken in adultery and said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
And so, said my colleague, he took it upon himself to rectify the situation. Seeing how the story was tending, I found myself revising my perhaps too-hasty opinion of him. Perhaps, I thought, he was a man of broader, deeper character than I had hitherto surmised.
Then he went on with his story.
His solution to the appearance of the prostitute in the church house was not to welcome her, speak to her, tell her of God’s grace and forgiveness. No, it was to step forth boldly before the congregation and declare that such a wanton creature should not darken the door of the Lord’s house; she should be barred from coming back ever again.
“We never saw that whore again.” This was told in tones of quiet satisfaction, the tones of a man who had humbly but bravely done his duty. To say that I was gobsmacked is to riot in understatement. I had a hard time believing he had read the same Gospels that had been read to me — and that I had of my own volition eagerly read — since my earliest childhood.
(This same colleague told another interesting — albeit more secular — story that has also stayed with me. In brief, it was how he had spent years in the service of the local political machine buying votes on election days: “Ten dollars each for whites, five dollars each for the niggers.” He had worked his local district for decades like this. Oddly enough, the previous summer, I’d worked for another state agency, picking up trash on the highways, where another aged colleague told the same tale, although he worked a different district.)
The theological disquisition of my other colleague in the state park was not quite so vivid, although it too stayed through almost 40 years since those halcyon days. One day, while making our rounds, the talk turned for some reason to interracial marriage. Of course, it goes without saying that these two Christian gentlemen considered such a thing as completely and utterly retrograde to their “sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions.” There was not any question about it; anyone involved in such filth was bound for hell — as was any nation that countenanced such evil. This was standard fare for that time and place, a sentiment I had heard expressed by most people around me since I was first able to discern the meaning of human speech.
Given the ubiquity and all-pervasiveness of this sentiment, it’s not likely that it alone would have a lodged in my mind for long a time. But what I found curious was how this stalwart’s sincerely held convictions regarding the purity of marriage transcended ordinary notions of race altogether. To be sure, he strongly held forth that he didn’t believe in marriage between “white people and Mexicans;” that was, again, de rigueur for our milieu. No, what struck me was that he went on in his religious-nationalist fervor: “I don’t believe no white should marry no French, or Italian, or Russian, or English neither!”
I think it was this last that impressed me most deeply. Not even the English were white enough for this good white Christian American! Even the English — the very avatars of whiteness, who had carried their “white man’s burden” to the four corners of the earth in the god-ordained crusade of Empire — were not really white … because they weren’t American whites! Or, to be more specific, they were not Southern American white people, because doubtless this stalwart would have considered, say, Italian-Americans in New Jersey or Irish Catholics in Boston to be far less than white. (And don’t even get him started on the Jews!)
Many years later, I myself married one of these ungodly non-white people: an Englishwoman, no less! My colleague had long flown to mansions on high by that point, but I must admit he crossed my mind as my English bride and I plighted our troth in the ancient environs of Oxford.
I was reminded of these long-gone co-workers by today’s stories out of Mississippi: a state where I once worked in the piney swamps of Meridan, the city where they tried — and freed — the killers of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. These were the civil rights workers who’d gone down to Mississippi in the Sixties to ensure that everyone had the right to vote — and the right to be served at businesses open to the public without being turned away because of someone’s “sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions” that certain kinds of people were beyond the pale.
Many people died and many more suffered to take us out of that pit of hate and despair. And by the time I was riding with the stalwarts — 13 years after those murders — their attitudes seemed quaint, outdated, broken vestiges of a vanished past. I laughed at them, and kept laughing for 40 years. But as that famous Southerner William Faulkner once said, the past is never dead; it’s not even past. And so the good stalwart white Southern Christians of modern-day Mississippi have reassembled the dry bones of hatred and prejudice and made them walk again. A whole new army of Jim Crow zombies.
The laugh was on me, on all of us. Despite all the deaths, all the suffering, here we are again: if not at the absolute beginning, then close — too Mississippi goddam close — to it. The old battles must be fought again. The self-righteous peddlers of prejudice, the hawkers of hatred, the weak and stunted souls who turn away the suffering, who cling belligerently to the accidents of their pigment and their national origin in a vain and pathetic attempt to keep their own terrors and chaos and shortcomings at bay — they are back with renewed vigor, and we must take them on again.Add a comment
The Devil Done Got Loose in Mississippi, Pulling Jim Crow From the Grave
The Devil is loose in Mississippi, dressed up like a preacher and hollering God's name. The Guardian reports it here. Growing up in the South, I knew many people who felt that interracial marriage "conflicted with their sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions." Many also sincerely believed that ANY mixing of races -- at lunch counters, water fountains, hotels, churches, schools, toilets, etc. -- also conflicted with their "religious beliefs or moral convictions." That's why we had the Jim Crow laws. This new law in Mississippi makes ALL of that possble again, and more. If you can refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds, you can refuse it to interracial couples, mixed-religion couples, unmarried couples, divorcees -- to anyone doing ANYTHING that you believe is a sin and don't want to be associated with. There is serious evil afoot here, and it goes far beyond "political correctness." It is the re-introduction of state-backed hatred and bigotry, using an obscence perversion of the ideal of "religious liberty" to mask its true and deeply pernicious nature.Add a comment